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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Raising the stakes

Protest outside One Police Plaza

Al wants march down Fifth Ave.

'We're shopping for justice'

Determined to display public outrage over last week's fatal police shooting, more than a hundred of the city's top black and Latino elected officials, church and labor leaders announced plans yesterday for a massive pre-Christmas march along Manhattan's Fifth Ave.

"We're going shopping for justice this Christmas," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who organized a closed-door summit last night at the penthouse offices of 1199/SEIU, the powerful health workers union.

"Last year [transit workers union leader] Roger Toussaint shocked the city," Sharpton said. "This time we will."

The summit chose Dec. 16 for the march from The Plaza hotel to Herald Square because it is the fourth birthday of the daughter of Sean Bell, the 23-year-old killed on his wedding day in Queens.

Sharpton told the crowd that Bell's parents and fiancée have approved of the march and will lead it.

In an emotional high point of the gathering, Trent Benefield, 23, one of two friends of Bell who was wounded in the Nov. 25 shooting, was ushered into last night's summit in a wheelchair shortly after being released from the hospital. As Benefield entered looking very weak, the crowd gave him a standing ovation.

It was a virtual Who's Who of the city's most respected minority and labor leaders, many of whom stood up to say the 50-shot barrage by five cops against the three unarmed men called for a unified response.

Among those present were city Controller William Thompson; the Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem's Abysssinian Baptist Church; Malcolm Smith, the minority leader of the state Senate; teachers' union President Randi Weingarten; radio personality Bob Law, and dozens of City Council members and Albany lawmakers.

Butts was among the first to speak. The recent shooting, he said, reflects a growing problem in police conduct. He noted that several black leaders have called for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly to resign, something Mayor Bloomberg has dismissed.

"There are a number of people who have had encounters with the police," Butts said. "These are truly horror stories that happen every day in communities of color."

Eric Adams, a former police captain and newly elected state senator from Brooklyn, warned the group that they needed to agree on "specific demands for police reforms" of City Hall, or "nothing will be accomplished."

"It's time for plans of action, not plans of talk," said George Gresham, secretary-treasurer of 1199. Gresham vowed his union would throw its resources into organizing the march.

Others called for a repeat of the daily civil disobedience arrests that Sharpton organized after Amadou Diallo was killed by cops in 1999.

One thing was clear. Like the Diallo incident, this latest shooting has touched off a furor the leaders of our city will have to address.

What Butts didn't say, but they all knew, is that while stopping to buy his grandchildren french fries, he was given a ticket, basically, for talking back to a cop. Butts leads the most important all-black church in the city, Abyssinian Baptist Church (Riverside is integrated). There isn't a cop in his precinct who shouldn't know who he is. But his demands for an apology have been ignored.

What makes this different are a couple of things. Weingarten and Thompson make it clear that the cops shouldn't look for support on this, the way Giuliani supported them during Diallo. This is the no-bullshit leadership of the city, the new, non-white city.

If the TWU strike last winter showed that the city was no longer run by whites, this will show that the city has to respond to legitimate demands for change from the majority of it's citizens. The Daily News has played this carefully because they have no choice. The transit strike showed them who their readers really are.

This is an assault on two things: one, the business community, which many people feel could force through change, and the police's rules on protest.

Let's set the scene: what Sharpton is promising to do is to block 5th Avenue on the big shopping Saturday before Christmas. Since the Giuliani era, protest has been restricted on terms favorable to the police. The marchers have not asked for a permit and don't plan on walking on the sidewalks like they make many protesters. This should cost the city tens of millions of dollars in tax revenue and even more in store profits.

Kelly is faced with a brutal choice. If he doesn't stop the march, it will cost the city a great deal of money. If he tries to block the avenue with cops, all hell will break loose. I could easily see people charging police lines and the resulting riot would cost more than the march.

People are extremely angry. The cops have tried to claim all three victims had been arrested by leaking information to the local papers, but it hasn't gone far. Their usual attempts to dirty up the victims are falling on deaf ears. A lot of that is due to Nicole Poultre's extremely poised performance on Larry King Monday. The cops are still claiming that there was a fourth man with a gun, but it's as elusive as Judge Crater. Maybe they thought they were watching Heroes or something.

A lot of this is carryover anger from the unsatisfactory resolution of the Diallo and Dorismond cases. It has never been resolved and this time, people will be relentless in seeing these cops jailed on some charges. The race of the cops is irrelevant. People want there to be a resolution where cops are punished for murder.

Now, the evidence may not be there for that, but the feeling among many is that Sean Bell was executed in his car and the police are common murderers. Police explainations of justified shootings don't only fall on deaf ears, but engrages people. The feeling that the police are in the wrong is not just shared by common New Yorkers, but the city's minority leadership and unions.
One other point, in both the Diallo and Dorismond cases, exile politics played a role. There were outside actors who had their own issues to deal with beyond American concerns of race.

Bell is an American, so is his family and fiance. They don't have accents and they know how the city works. The police and their media friends will have a hard time outmanuvering them.

posted by Steve @ 2:44:00 AM

2:44:00 AM

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